No. 12 Stanford men’s volleyball (12-13, 4-8 MPSF) entered its regular season finale against No. 8 Pepperdine (16-9, 7-5 MPSF) in pursuit of an away victory that eluded them all season. After the Waves’ comfortable sweep in the doubleheader’s first match on Thursday, Stanford forced a fiery five-set battle on Saturday. Even so, the Cardinal came up just short of a reverse sweep, as errors, challenges and timeouts abounded in their dramatic finale of MPSF conference play.
Forcing five in season finale (21-25, 21-25, 25-13, 25-23, 11-15)
Pepperdine looked to have found their stride early, racing out to a 10-5 lead. With the match still in its infancy, the Cardinal’s junior outside hitter Will Rottman argued with an official over a call and received a yellow card. It was his second yellow card in a week; he earned one last Saturday during the team’s victory over unranked Brigham Young University (8-15, 3-8 MPSF).
While Rottman managed to use his emotions for the team’s offensive benefit by recording a kill, Pepperdine outside hitters Spencer Wickens and Alex Gettinger pushed back, each contributing a kill of their own to extend the Waves’ lead to 12-6. With things off to a tough start, Stanford called a timeout.
Even after the timeout, nothing seemed to be going in the Cardinal’s favor, as they received a net violation. Head coach John Kosty challenged the call, but after review, the previous judgment stood, and the Waves retained their 13-7 lead. Just as in its sweep of Stanford two days before, Pepperdine appeared firmly in control of the set as the team held onto the early advantage.
As the set progressed, Stanford junior outside hitter Kevin Lamp made crucial contributions which brought his team within striking distance. A kill from sophomore opposite Luke Turner brought the Cardinal even closer, diminishing Pepperdine’s lead to just 22-21. But just as Stanford seemed to be finding its footing in the first set, two kills from Pepperdine middle blocker Austin Wilmot quickly brought on set point for the Waves. An attack error cost the Cardinal the set, as it went to Pepperdine 25-21.
The Waves were able to hold Rottman, the Cardinal’s top scorer and the sixth-ranked hitter in the NCAA for kills per set, to just two kills in the opening set.
A tight second set followed, with the Cardinal and the Waves fighting for alternating points. Errors prevented either team from pulling ahead early on. Around the set’s midway point, however, Wickens and outside hitter Jaylen Jasper — a former Cardinal volleyball player — started to find holes in Stanford’s defense. The two landed several well-timed kills, allowing their team to hold a slight edge 15-13 going into a Stanford timeout.
Kills from Turner and junior middle blocker Nathaniel Gates helped the Cardinal pull even with Pepperdine. But the Waves have proved dangerous, especially when they are behind, and they took the lead again. A marathon rally shortly thereafter ultimately went Pepperdine’s way, extending the Waves’ lead to 22-19. A pair of Cardinal errors then gave the Waves set point, which they converted to take the second set 25-21 and a 2-0 lead in the match.
Rottman started the Cardinal off strong in the third set with back-to-back kills. The team appeared energized, keeping Pepperdine’s attack at bay and finding an 11-7 lead. Rottman landed an ace — coupled with Pepperdine errors and kills from Turner and redshirt sophomore middle blocker Ethan Hill, the Cardinal’s lead increased to 15-8. The Cardinal held on, and kills from Rottman and Gates gave them a serious advantage at 20-11. Pepperdine looked discombobulated for perhaps the first time in the doubleheader.
Stanford continued to persist on the attack, as errors by the Waves furthered Stanford’s lead, giving them set point at 24-12. The Cardinal converted it a couple points later, claiming the third set convincingly 25-13. As a team, they had posted an intimidating combined attack percentage of .632 in the set, compared to the Waves’ .043. The Waves still led 2-1, but the fight was on.
The fourth set resembled the first two, as the score remained close throughout. The one difference, however, was the Cardinal’s increased confidence. After a slow start to the match, Rottman appeared to finally find his swing, hitting around Pepperdine blocks and collecting critical points for the Cardinal.
The Waves showed once again that they are not to be taken lightly, fighting back from a 12-14 deficit to take the lead 15-14. Both sides continued to trade points, as an ace from Rottman gave the Cardinal a 19-18 advantage. He followed this with a back row attack for the 20-18 lead, and another kill shortly after to give Stanford the 22-20 advantage. He and Turner proved to be a lethal offensive pair, giving the Cardinal the set point at 24-22. Turner ultimately converted this opportunity to clinch the set 25-23 and force a deciding fifth set.
“Even though we lost two sets early on, we knew there were things we could fix, do better and play more as a team,” said Kosty. “And that’s exactly what we did to get ourselves back in that match and have an opportunity to play the fifth set.”
The tension was palpable, as both teams clawed for the 15 points necessary to claim the victory. While Pepperdine got off to the faster start, kills from Gates, Rottman and Turner kept the Cardinal within reach. But the team struggled with service errors and Pepperdine’s constant attacks, prompting Kosty to call his second timeout of the young set with Stanford down 11-8.
This pause did not stop Jasper and Wilmot from continuing their offensive campaign, and the Waves found several match points at 14-10. Wilmot blocked Turner to close out the set 15-11 and the match, 3-2.
“There were great performances all the way,” Kosty said of the five-set game. “I just wish we could have gotten those one or two points even early on to give us an opportunity at the end.”
It was a hard-fought loss for the Cardinal, and the team still turned in solid performances across the board. Rottman led Stanford with 21 kills, Lamp had 12 and Turner recorded 10. Gates and Hill both hit well over .500 with six kills apiece. Junior setter Nathan Lietzke ran the team’s offense with 47 assists. He also had eight digs to complement redshirt junior libero Justin Lui’s nine. Hill managed five blocks, while Rottman had three.
MPSF tournament preview
The Cardinal will now move on to the postseason after closing out the regular season on Saturday.
“As I told the team at the conclusion of the Pepperdine match,” Kosty said, “it is now championship time.”
Entering the MPSF tournament as the fifth seed, Stanford will play No. 10 Grand Canyon University (16-11, 6-6 MPSF) in its first match of the knockout draw.
“Pepperdine and Grand Canyon are similar in the respect that the tempo of offense that they run is pretty fast,” Kosty said, previewing the matchup.
“I think we’re mentally tough enough to go out and do some damage in the tournament,” he added.
Though the Cardinal hold a 4-8 conference record this season and lost both matches in their doubleheader against GCU a fortnight ago, Kosty feels his team can rise to the occasion.
“This is what we’ve been training for the entire season,” he said. “To go play one match with everything on the line.”
First serve against GCU is scheduled for April 20 at 8 p.m. PT at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles.